1968 Chicago Riot Left Mark On Political Protests Democrats are gathering for their national convention in Denver with the party divided and the country mired in an unpopular war. The situation was similar 40 years ago when Democrats convened in Chicago, amid battles between protesters and police. What happened then still influences political protests today.
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1968 Chicago Riot Left Mark On Political Protests

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1968 Chicago Riot Left Mark On Political Protests

1968 Chicago Riot Left Mark On Political Protests

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As Democrats gather in Denver, their party has been divided by a bruising nomination contest. The country remains divided by an unpopular war. The situation was almost similar 40 years ago, when Democrats convened in Chicago and battles erupted in the streets between Vietnam War protesters and Chicago police. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports that the mayhem outside the Chicago convention continues to influence political protest 40 years later.

IRA JAFFE: No one who knew Chicago imagined that August of 1968 would be another summer of love. The alternative weekly newspaper the Chicago Seed wrote, if you're coming to Chicago, be sure to wear some armor in your hair. Mayor Richard J. Daley had a master force of 12,000 police officers, 6,000 National Guard and 6,000 Army troops. He assured convention delegates that all would be well.

SIMON: And as long as I am mayor of this town, there will be law and order in Chicago.

SIMON: He was the king of his city.

JAFFE: Says Tom Hayden, one of the chief organizers of the antiwar demonstrations. Protest leaders had worked for months, he said, to get permits from the city to march, to rally, and camp in the parks.

SIMON: We were used to the idea that authorities would stall on permits, but I think some of us thought that the permits would come through at the end. So we just went forward.

JAFFE: But the permits didn't come, so there was almost nothing that protesters could do without violating the law. The massive crowd that the organizers hoped for didn't materialize.

SIMON: When the week started, there were only six or seven hundred people in the park. It grew to about 10,000, nearly all of them from Chicago.

JAFFE: Violence became a daily event. Marches and rallies were broken up by police with night sticks and tear gas. It was the same most nights in the parks. Protesters would gather, and then when the 11 p.m. curfew rolled around, the police would move in with clubs and gas, pursuing them into the streets. One of those nights, Vivian Stovall and a mixed-race group of friends sat down in Grand Park and formed a human chain.

SIMON: Next thing we know, we were being kicked, being pulled apart, and some very racial statements being made, and then I looked up and when I looked up, that's when I got hit. And I still have the scar, you know, right here. I mean, you see the mole has basically covered it up.

JAFFE: By your eyebrow.

Ms. STOVALL; Yeah, right there. And next thing - I remember feeling this warm, wet stuff on my face, and I was bleeding.

JAFFE: Stovall was 19 years old in 1968. She had been driving from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana to start the new semester at Grambling State University when she and some classmates decided on the spur of the moment to take a detour to Chicago.

SIMON: And we were talking while we were on our way there about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and we talked about the Vietnam War. We just felt nobody was listening to us at that time anyway, and we just wanted to have our say or at least be part of something.


JAFFE: The most infamous battle took place on Wednesday, August 28th, outside of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. By most accounts, it wasn't the most violent confrontation that week, but the Hilton was where the media was stationed so it's the one that got the most news coverage. CBS Engineer Fred Turner described what he saw from his fifth-floor window.

SIMON: Now they're moving in. The cops are moving in, and they are really belting these characters, they're grabbing them, sticks are flailing, people are laying on the ground. I can see them, colored people. There's a - cops are just belting them, there are - the cops are just laying it in. Oh, there's piles of bodies on the street. There's no question about it. You can hear the screams. Now there's a guy they're just dragging along the street and they don't care. I don't think they do, they don't - don't know whether he's alive or dead. Holy Jesus, look at it, he's - five of them are belting him really hard. This man will never get up.

JAFFE: It's not the sort of experience that anyone would want to repeat. But there are people who see something in those days worth reviving.

SIMON: My name is Mark Cohen, and I'm a co-founder of Re-Create 68.

JAFFE: Cohen is 62 years old. In 1968, he was in Africa in the Peace Corps, not in Chicago. He says his organization's name was meant to one, get attention, and two, recall the spirit of the '60s, not the violence. He's been planning to protest at the Democratic Convention since he heard it was coming to his hometown of Denver.

SIMON: The reason we're protesting is because Mr. Obama's reputation as a progressive is not really deserved. For example, his so-called antiwar stance involves a program to remove combat troops from Iraq over a period of 16 months. The majority of American people want those troops removed immediately, as soon as possible.

JAFFE: Cohen was standing in the official demonstration zone for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver. He and the rest of Re-Create 68 will be in parking lot A, nearly 300 yards from the convention hall.

SIMON: We call it the freedom cage.

JAFFE: The so-called freedom cage will be ringed in two layers of fencing, behind a huge white tent set up for the media, and the sanctioned route for marchers will leave them more than a quarter of a mile from the convention site. Re-Create 68 and other groups sued the city and the Secret Service to get closer to the action, but a federal judge upheld the city's plans. Katherine Archuleta, Denver's lead planner for the convention, said no way the city is turning the demonstration zone into a cage.

SIMON: People can go and come as they like. The other thing that we are doing in the demonstration zone is to provide a stage and speakers and microphone so that they can be heard a greater distance. And that's really the city's role, is finding that proper balance between safety and security and the rights of those who would come and want to raise their voices.

SIMON: I don't mean to exaggerate, but it is the end of freedom.

JAFFE: Again, Tom Hayden.

SIMON: This is the freedom to protest as designed for you by an authoritarian state under the direction of the police.

JAFFE: Caged or not, when demonstrators raise their voices in Denver, they will be talking or singing or shouting about more than the war in Iraq. The environment will be on the agenda, and poverty and health care and immigrant rights and more. Political scientist Michael Heaney of the University of Florida says that because of 1968, we've now become a movement society.

P: What 1968 demonstrated was that protest could be an effective tactic to bringing about social change. So important new protest tactics were invented: the sit-in, the large demonstration. And people learned that these were ways that they could effectively influence the government.

JAFFE: Heaney's been studying the current antiwar movement, and he has noticed something interesting about who's in it.

P: Really, two groups. One group is the people who were active in the antiwar movement 40 years ago.

JAFFE: The other group: people in their 20s.

P: But you really see very little in between the two groups.

JAFFE: In fact, the upcoming convention protests in Denver will have a kind of retro quality. In addition to the group Re-Create 68, there's another called Tent State University, a reference to Kent State in Ohio, where four students were killed while protesting the war in Vietnam. And Students for a Democratic Society, the organization that Tom Hayden helped found in the 1960s, is springing up again on college campuses.

SIMON: Nobody has invited me to come back and chair a meeting. They're talking about it in an imaginary or aspirational sense.

JAFFE: Over the past four decades, Hayden has gone from outside agitator to party insider. He served in the California state legislature for 18 years. He's been a delegate to national Democratic conventions six times. Vivian Stovall has also become a party activist. She's been to four conventions, and she'll be in Denver as a delegate for Barack Obama. It's kind of silly, she says, to try to keep protesters away from the delegates, many of whom have put in time on picket lines and marches just like she has.

SIMON: A large percentage of those delegates have people out there who are rallying or protesting issues that they care about. And as a matter of fact, as a delegate, I might get out there myself.

JAFFE: Not re-creating the spirit of 1968 - still living it. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can find photographs of the 1968 Democratic National Convention at npr.org. You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.

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